Kevin McCloud on the Latin word 'villa'

Kevin McCloud on the Latin word ‘villa’

Kevin looks at how different architects have interpreted its significance throughout history

By Hannah Fenton |

One of the four programmes making up this year’s House of the Year TV series on Channel 4 is devoted to the modern villa in Britain.

And there are plenty of them: single contemporary dwellings of a certain size (medium to large homes) set very consciously within an organised landscape.

There will be at least one in the pages of this magazine every month or two; often beautiful to admire and usually outside the reach of the rest of us.

Kevin McCloud on the meaning of the Latin word villa 1

Photo: Marco Amaru

The word itself is a little clouded in meaning these days, but it comes directly from the Latin villa, which meant country house or farm. In Roman antiquity a villa represented a Virgilian ideal, a rural abode with an estate to which men of letters or arms would retire.

In the sixteenth century, architect Palladio sought to re-establish the nobility of that idea in the villas he built for clients, writing: “The ancient sages commonly used to retire to such places, where being oftentimes visited by their virtuous friends and relations, having houses, gardens, fountains and such like pleasant places, and above all their virtue, they could easily attain to as much happiness as can be attained.”

Today we might head off, Virtue under our arm, to a boho country hotel with spa for such bucolic attractions where we can find some rare-breed pigs artfully placed in the landscape.

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Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, in Poissy, France, reinterpreted classical ideals to create a modern design. Photo: Matt Chisnall

Palladio had the Roman architect Vitruvius to thank for laying out a guide to designing the perfect villa in his Ten Books on Architecture. It involved choosing the correct site, orienting the building, organising the agricultural activities in secondary structures and arranging the rooms for climate and sun.

Every piece of practical advice that Vitruvius gives is still good to the extent that the practicability of the villa he describes has, over the centuries, combined with Virgil’s more poetic and nostalgic concept of the villa in its landscape, and hardened into something of an architectural ideal.

Fuelled by the potency of these classical ideas – reinforced by Palladio’s books – architects from every century and country have attempted their own versions of the villa, as though they were chefs and the villa were a particular kind of perfect syllabub.

Photo: Adam Gimpert

This ideal hasn’t got any less distracting with the passage of time. Le Corbusier obsessed about the relationship between the elevated detached home and the productive, domesticated landscape.

He reinterpreted both Vitruvius and Palladio, reinventing the whole inside/outside thing a century before we all went out shopping for bi-fold doors, and translating the classical geometry of the Golden Section to his Villa Savoye at Poissy near Paris.

Colin Rowe, in his seminal essay of 1947 The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa, wrote: ‘The Savoye House has been given a fair number of interpretations: it may be a machine for living in, an arrangement of interpenetrating volume and external space, another emanation of space, time and architecture. It is probably all these things; but the suggestive reference to the dreams of Virgil, and a certain similarity of site, solution and feeling put one in mind of the passage in which Palladio describes the (Villa) Rotonda. The landscape there is more agrarian and bucolic, there is less of the untamed pastoral, the scale is larger, but the effect is somehow the same.’

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Villa Capra, or La Rotonda, was designed by Andrea Palladio in the fourteenth century, and adheres to the principles set out in Vitruvius’s text. Photo: James Morris

So is this 2,000-year-old idea worth pursuing? In the House of the Year 2016 programme, which follows swiftly on the heels of Grand Designs, there are, for example, two villas by John Pardey, whose single stated aim with his buildings is to achieve some kind of longevity.

Frank Gehry said that all architecture should speak of its era and place, but it should yearn for timelessness, a quality that Rowe identifies as inherent in all the opportunities that Palladio laid out for a client: ‘Its owner, from within the fragment of created order, will watch the maturing of his possessions, and savour the piquancy of contrast between his fields and his gardens; reflecting on mutability, he will contemplate through the years the antique virtues of a simpler race, the harmonious ordering of his life and estate will be an analogy of paradise.’

Quote that back to yourself when you see the programme.

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